Mobile IT comes of age in construction, by Jason Scott.
Despite frequent characterisation to the contrary, construction in general is an innovative and creative industry which often adopts the methods and technology of other sectors. It was among the first to use computer bureaus in the 1960s, to use telex and facsimile machines, to adopt two-way radios, email and mobile telephones.
Construction’s poor reputation for using information technology stems largely from those areas where its application is problematic in comparison to the manufacturing industry. Construction is different from manufacturing.
This difference has many facets but probably the most commonly quoted is the “one-off” nature of construction.
However, fundamentally construction is a repeatable and repeated process, as the many familiar and eminently recognisable structures that surround us bear testament to.
While construction has many similarities to manufacturing, the difference that is most significant for IT is the one that is most obvious. Manufacturing takes place in a structured environment with a fixed infrastructure: construction does not.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the area of IT that construction has been “slow” to adopt is process monitoring and control. It is unfortunate for construction’s reputation that this area has probably provided the single greatest benefit to manufacturing in the last 50 years.
William Edwards Demming’s ground-breaking work in Japan in the 1950s, which was at the forefront of the quality movement, was predicated on process information. “In God we trust, all others must bring data” as he famously stated. Applying statistical analysis to process control has quite literally revolutionised the manufacturing industry.
Achieving the same benefits in construction has, until recently, been extremely difficult. That situation has now changed. In the last 10 years IT has become truly mobile and independent of a wired infrastructure.
Long-life batteries, sunlight-readable screens, rugged devices, better sensors and lower cost have finally allowed the construction industry to start routinely collecting the same kind of process information that manufacturing has had for nearly half a century.
The problem now is determining how best to use this new tool. Having been largely absent from its development the construction industry is faced with a mature technology, but one that has been tailored to manufacturing.
Finding the most effective way of applying statistical analysis to site processes and leveraging the value of mobile IT is not an easy thing to do.
What is beyond doubt is that the industry will adopt this approach and that given time, will reap the benefits in productivity and quality that manufacturing has enjoyed. Better understanding between technology developers and construction users would aid this transition.
In this area organisations such as Comit can help. Fostering cooperation between different sectors within construction is also important. By sharing experience we may accelerate the application of mobile IT to our industry while avoiding the worst mistakes of the past.
- Jason Scott is Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering development manager and construction chairman for Comit.